“Zionism: The Birth and Transformation of an Ideal,” by Milton Viorst

Zionism: The Birth and Transformation of an Ideal,” is ambitious in its scope, and original in its format. The history follows chapters on critical figures including Theodor Herzl, Chaim Weizmann, Vladimir Jabotinsky, David Ben-Gurion, Rav Abraham Isaac Kook and Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, Menachem Begin, and a final chapter “Arriving at Netanyahu.” But it is clear from the outset that this will not be a fair and balanced history.

The author’s biases and proclivities at lobbing undue criticism at Zionism at the expense of its enemies seep through and mar the story. The book bills itself as an “exam[ination] of the evolution of Zionism from its seminal aim of establishing a refuge for Europe’s beleaguered Jews to the cover it provides today for Israel to control millions of Arabs in territories occupied by its army.” And that is the give-away that this not an objective work, but a political statement.

While recounting the history of Zionism though the lens of the major characters, Viost constantly injects his own personal ideological attacks that weave through the book, distracting from its essence. And some are not so subtle.
In his preface, Viorst frames his viewpoint squarely:

How did Zionism, over the course of a century, evolve from the idealism of providing refuge for beleaguered Jews to a rationalization for the army’s occupation of powerless Palestinians? In recent years, though Israel grew stronger and more prosperous as a nation, Zionism became increasingly defined by military power. Meanwhile, Israel, Zionism’s offspring, lost much of the sympathy it had once enjoyed from the international community by oppressing the Palestinians under its control…
Does Zionism’s recent silence [on President Obama’s two major negotiating efforts] suggest that the Jewish DNA contains an immunity to peace?…
The Zionism we know today is not a unified idea but a composite of bitter rivalries between stubborn men and their visions of Jewish statehood. Zionism has created a successful country but it has not made Jews more secure. The absence of peace, in my judgment, keeps the Zionist achievement in jeopardy.

Viorst’s conclusions book-end these critical sentiments, “Is Israel ready to seize an opportunity to reach out for peace? The answer is certainly: not yet. But, given the turbulence of our times, is it not fair to ask whether it must be soon?”

That Israel has demonstrated that it wants peace, but its rights and security come first, as the pure expression of Zionism to be a nation for the Jewish People in its ancient homeland, seems to be something Viorst skims over in his zeal to pin the obstacles to peace on Israel and not its rejectionist, anti-Zionist, anti-Semitic Palestinian and Arab neighbors. The Arabs have been offered their own state living alongside Israel six times since 1937 and have rejected each offer, meeting them with violence and terrorism. Their own founding documents and charters (Hamas, PLO, Fatah, Palestinian Authority) call for the elimination of Israel and the Jewish People. These are the so-called “peace partners” Israel has no choice but to deal with. If you cannot make peace with such people who reject your very existence, then you must defeat your enemies, or at least contain them, which is the situation Israel has found itself since 1967, and especially post-Oslo in 1993. Perhaps this is why Israelis have voted for Netanyahu as their Prime Minister for the past seven years (he has been elected three times in a row) because he understands this, to the chagrin of those like the author, a naïve visionary, who places the onus prominently on Israel.

Viorst glosses over Arab misconduct throughout the account, and misreports the facts. He fails to hold the Palestinian Arabs accountable for their obligations under Oslo (end incitement to hatred and murder, outlaw terrorist groups, arrest and extradite terrorists, confiscate illegal weaponry). He fails to set the full context for why Israel finally invaded Gaza after enduring years of thousands of rockets and missiles fired at its population centers. He fails to state that these are indeed war crimes, and makes short shrift of the dozens of offensive tunnels dug by Hamas that posed a real threat to Israel’s security. Viorst then baldly states that in the 2014 conflict, “more than two thousand Arab lives, including hundreds of children” were “taken” versus only sixty- six Israeli soldiers. Besides this being the tired, old disproportionality argument, it is deliberately incomplete: it has been clearly documented that more than half of the Arab casualties were of the Hamas terrorists themselves in the IDF’s surgical strikes. He fails also to describe how Israel in unprecedented fashion pre-warned Gazans of impending attacks on their terrorist infrastructures and missiles, halted many attacks to limit civilian casualties despite the presence of terrorists committing or about to launch attacks; fails to acknowledge these as war crimes of Hamas, the terrorists hiding behind civilians and using them as human shields, launching their attacks from mosques, schools, homes and hospitals, and aiming them to purposefully harm Israeli civilians.

More disconcertingly, Viorst fails to highlight Zionism’s amazingly positive contributions since the founding of the state: the Start Up Nation, how such a small nation makes such tremendously positive contributions on the world stage — far out-punching its weight — how it is a major first responder to natural disasters; shares its high-tech medical, security, agricultural know-how world-wide, even with its enemies and neighbors; continues to supply Gazans with electricity and water and allows thousands of tons of supplies into that region despite its being a hostile entity; how it medically cares for thousands of Arabs, and Syrians for free. This is the essence of Jewish, and Zionist, values. If this is not important to the Zionism story, then it is hard to know what is.

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